The Oil City South Side Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Oil City South Side Historic District is a mixed-use historic district of approximately 222 acres, located on the south side of the Allegheny River within the City of Oil City, Venango County, at the juncture of the Allegheny River and Oil Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania. The district consists of a neighborhood commercial area along the banks of the river and a large residential section along the river and on a hillside to the south. In addition to commercial and residential buildings, several churches and other institutional buildings are dispersed throughout the district. The architecture of the Oil City South Side Historic District includes building styles representative of nearly all of the popular modes of design throughout the period of significance. Included among these styles are Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Italian Villa, High Victorian Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Neo-Classical Revival, Late Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival (including Georgian and Dutch Colonial Revival), Tudor Revival, American Foursquare, and Bungalow, as well as vernacular adaptations of many of the individual styles. The district contains a total of 932 resources built between the early 1860s and the 1980s. Very few resources pre-date 1870; approximately 40% of the resources in the district date from the period 1870-1900, an additional 40% date from the years between 1900 and 1930, and the remaining 20% post-date 1930. One building within the district — the Oil City Armory — is already listed in the National Register and is not counted in the resource count. Among the remaining 931 resources are 927 buildings and 4 objects. The objects are military-related monuments and memorials. Of the total number of resources, 885 (95%) are contributing to the character of the district and 47 (5%) are non-contributing. Of the 927 buildings, 882 (96%) are contributing and 45 (4%) are noncontributing; of the objects within the district, 2 (50%) are contributing and 2 (50%) are non-contributing.
Contributing resources are those which were built within the period of significance of the district, which retain an integrity of design, feeling, workmanship, materials, and setting. Noncontributing resources are those which were constructed outside the period of significance of the district and/or have been altered so extensively that they no longer convey a sense of history within the context of the district. Noncontributing resources in the district are widely dispersed throughout the area. The district retains a high level of integrity. While several newer apartment buildings have been erected — generally on the site of historic neighborhood school buildings — and some new commercial development has occurred in the commercial area, no single pocket of noncontributing development exists in the district.
The Oil City South Side Historic District is arranged in a series of grids of streets and alleys running parallel and perpendicular to one another. The original community of Laytonia extended from the Allegheny River to southward to Fourth Street and from present-day Wilson Avenue to present-day Reed Street. West End Borough extended downriver from Mayer Street to Reservoir Street. Moving southward and away from the Allegheny River, the major streets are Front Street (formerly Venango Avenue), North Street, and First through Fourth Streets. East-west alleys run parallel to these streets and include North Alley, First through Fifth Alleys, Hemlock Alley, and Lee's Lane (named for early settler Charles Lee). The streets and alleys are divided into "East" and "West" at Central Avenue. Secondary east-west streets include: Orchard Street, running parallel to Front and First Streets between Petroleum and Division Streets; School Street, running parallel to East Second and East Third Streets between Wilson and Central Avenues; Beech Street, which parallels West First and West Second Streets between Reservoir and Mayer Streets; and Beatty Place, which extends one block between Lincoln and Reed Streets between West Second and West Third Streets. Moving from the east boundary of the district, the following streets extend southward away from the river: Wilson Avenue, State Street, Central Avenue, and Petroleum, Reed, Lincoln, Division, Orange (likely named for the Orange Oil Company which owned property in the area), Innis, Moran, Wyllis, and Smedley Streets, Cowell Avenue, Mayer Street, Mitchell Avenue (all named for early landowners), and Reservoir Street. Abbot and Hickory Streets extend one block southward from the river bank to West First Street, between Reservoir and Mayer Streets. Between Abbot Street and Hickory Street, McLane Place runs for one block between North Street and West First Street. Hazel Alley runs north-south between Petroleum Street, Central Avenue, West First Street, and the southern district boundary.
Moving southward away from the Allegheny River, the topography of the historic district rises gently from the level of the riverbank to about two hundred feet above the riverbank at East Second Street. The hillside then steepens and the southern boundary of the district lies about three hundred feet above the riverbank.
The cultural landscape of the Oil City South Side Historic District includes dense development in the neighborhood business area and medium-density land use in the residential neighborhoods. Within the commercial area, buildings are typically constructed flush with one another, with no front-lot setback. Several corners have been impacted by the construction of contemporary conveniences including service stations and drive-in banks. The streetscape of the commercial area is generally devoid of vegetation. Within the residential areas, many homes retain significant expanses of yard and stands of mature trees which soften the landscape throughout the district. Several streets and sidewalks within the residential portion of the district retain their historic brick pavement; while these characteristics clearly enhance the overall character, feeling, association, and appearance of the district, they are not counted in the resource inventory since they are low-scale landscape features. The Allegheny Valley/Pennsylvania/Conrail railroad track runs along the Allegheny River bank for the full length of the district's northern edge; it, too, is an uncounted landscape feature.
The South Side Historic District exhibits a broadly varied appearance due to its mix of divergent building types and architectural styles. Among these are small-scale vernacular cottages, institutional buildings and churches large and small, archetypical "downtown" architecture, modest suburban homes from the 1920s, and spacious nineteenth-century residences erected by the community's leading industrialists and business leaders. As noted above, residential design within the district includes examples drawn from nearly all of the styles of architecture popular from the time of the Civil War through World War II. Buildings executed in the Greek Revival, Italianate, French Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Gothic Revival, Stick, Shingle, and Queen Anne styles are generally found in the 2 1/2 blocks of the district immediately south of the Allegheny River (including Front, First, Second, and State Streets and Petroleum and Central Avenues). Later styles, including Colonial Revival, Neo-Classical Revival, Dutch Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Bungalow, and American Foursquare occur primarily along the streets which developed in the latter years of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth (including the western portions of First through Third Streets, North Street, and Orange through Reservoir Streets).
The Greek Revival style was on the wane by the time William Lay platted his new town in the early 1860s, However a smattering of Greek Revival-derived homes were built within the district, including a 1 1/2-story cottage with corner pilasters at 3 East Third Street. The Gothic Revival style, with its perpendicular massing and bargeboard-trimmed eaves is best represented in the ca. 1875 Warren J. Innis House (305 West Fourth Street). Other Gothic Revival-style residences include the 1876 home of Charles Lay (brother of Laytonia founder William Lay) at 114 Petroleum Street, a wood frame house at 711 West First Street, complete with an intersecting gable roof and bargeboarded eaves, a 2 1/2-story residence with sawn and turned bargeboard at 412 West First Street, and a modest ca. 1870 cottage at 209 West First Street.
As oilmen increased their fortunes, they erected larger homes to match their new-found stature in the community. The heyday of French Second Empire-style design was in the 1870s, corresponding to the rise of the South Side neighborhood. French Second Empire-style homes often exhibit Italianate-style trim (such as tall window proportions and bracketed cornices) and are graced universally by the characteristic dormered Mansard roof. Within the South Side Historic District, these include 101 East Third Street (complete with gabled dormers, a 2-story bay window, and art glass) and the ca. 1875 brick house of educator Dr. Samuel Earp at 112 West First Street. Dominating the 200 and 300 block of West First Street are three more spacious Second Empire-style homes. The 1875 residence at 301 West First Street, belonged to oilman Conrad Simmons. Drilling tool pioneer M. M. Mount and later dry goods merchant Robert Moore lived at 211 West First Street (1875). Businessman Wesley Chambers and later innovative optometrist August Morck occupied the commodious home at 205 West First Street (1876), which exhibits a Colonial Revival-style remodeling from ca. 1915.
One Italian Villa-style home is found in the district: 503 West Third Street, which is a ca. 1870 three-story, three-bay wood frame residence with a truncated hipped roof capped with a belvedere and trimmed with a one-story porch extending across the facade.
The Queen Anne style, characterized by large homes of irregular plan, a variety of exterior finishes, and often with a turret or tower, is seen in several South Side Historic District homes. Principal examples of this style include the ca. 1880 J. W. Kahle House at 118 Moran Street, which features a hipped roof with intersecting gable-end projections, and a shingled three-story circular tower; the pediment of the gable end on the facade is finished in a variety of shingled treatments. The ca. 1890 home of J. W. Kahle's brother, James C., at 110 Petroleum Street, is an imposing wood frame residence with a three-story bay window capped by a semi-octagonal roof and an octagonal tower; it has been converted for use as a funeral home. The ca. 1890 Alfred Smedley House (with Colonial Revival-style detailing including a Palladian window) is adjacent to the ca. 1890 home of oilman-merchant Fred Chambers at 204 West First Street (202 and 204 West First Street). The ca. 1890 Arthur M. Lowentritt House (505 West First Street) is an imposing residence with a multiple roof system, projecting pavilions and Queen Anne-style windows with multiple lights in the upper sash. At 114 West Second Street is a ca. 1890 Queen Ann/Colonial Revival-style wood frame residence with a multiple roof system and a semi-octagonal corner tower capped with a finial. At 151 West Third Street is a ca. 1890 3-story wood frame residence with an octagonal tower, partly trimmed with diamond-shaped shingling; this residence was built from designs taken from pattern-book architect George Barber.
The Shingle style is found in the district and is best exemplified by the Christ Episcopal Church Rectory at 309 West First Street. Likely constructed ca. 1886 when Christ Church was built, this home features shingled wood exterior with a double porch on the facade and a veranda with a Neo-Classical Revival-style pediment with garland-and-swag detailing. Many other homes throughout the district feature vernacular adaptations of the Shingle Style, with detailing usually consisting of shingled treatment to the pediments of gable-end elevations. Shingled finishes are most often imbricated. Among these are 127 Wyllis Street, a ca. 1910 2 1/2-story wood frame residence whose entire second story is clad in stained wood shingles, and 312 West Fourth Street, also ca. 1910, with a gable roof and gable-end orientation to the street, trimmed with art glass windows and still retaining an historic one-car garage on the lot.
The Neo-Classical Revival style of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was in full swing during one of the major growth periods of the historic district. Residences executed in this style typically are symmetrical in their arrangement and are ornamented with classically-derived motifs including garland-and-swag detailing and colonnaded porches and porticos, and often are distinguished by art glass, both stained and clear beveled plate glass. Notable examples of the Neo-Classical Revival style include: a 2 1/2-story ca. 1905 yellow brick residence 54 Moran Street, with gable roof and a gable dormer, a 3-bay facade with art glass sidelights, and a 1-story brick and wood porch supported by Ionic columns; 119 Moran Street (ca. 1900), 2 1/2 stories in height with a recessed paired window in the pediment of the gable and an entryway distinguished by Ionic pilasters; the ca. 1895 Arthur F. Seep House (607 West First Street), an imposing wood frame residence, handsomely restored, with a wood porch supported by Ionic columns and with a delicate turned balustrade; the E. Calvin Beatty House of 1901 at 517 West Third Street, a yellow brick residence with symmetrical facade including projecting pavilions on each side and a centered entryway with art glass transom sash and sidelights; and 501 West Third Street, a ca. 1910 2 1/2- story brick home with a truncated hipped roof with hipped and gable dormers, an entryway flanked by sidelights, and a one-story veranda supported by brick pillars and wood columns.
The Colonial Revival style, which had its roots in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, is found in residential design throughout the South Side Historic District. Homes executed in this style are generally symmetrically arranged and are trimmed with features such as Palladian windows. Colonial Revival-style homes are generally two to 2 1/2 stories in height and are executed both in brick and wood frame. Vernacular residences are generally more simply designed and may include Palladian windows or stylized variations thereon. Examples of this style within the district include: 401 Wyllis Street, a ca. 1900 2 1/2-story wood frame home with a truncated hipped roof, a large gablet on the facade and gabled dormers on the sides, all with Palladian windows; 312 Wyllis Street, a ca. 1920 1 1/2-story home with a three-bay facade and an entryway having a semi-elliptical arched motif; the ca. 1910 Charles Suhr House (507 West Third Street), a buff brick home with a tile roof, gabled dormers, and art glass. Vernacular Colonial Revival-style homes include twin houses of ca. 1900 at 3 and 5 Division Street, with stylized Palladian windows in the pediment of the gable on the facade.
The Dutch Colonial Revival style is seen in the district in generally small-scale residences with gambrel roof-systems. Homes erected in this style date from the 'teens through the 1930s and include: a ca. 1920 double house at 312-314 State Street, with a first floor of clapboard and a second story of stained wood shingles, capped with a gambrel roof with a shed dormer; 926 West First Street (ca. 1926), also with a gambrel roof and featuring a Corinthian frontispiece entrance; 923 West First Street (ca. 1920), a brick home with a gambrel roof and shed dormers on the front and rear and a pent roof extending across the facade; and 1020 West Third Street (ca. 1920).
The ubiquitous American Foursquare is found on nearly every street within the district. The Foursquare is representative of a "typical" style of American domestic architecture popular throughout the first forty years of the twentieth century. Characteristically square in form, the American Foursquare typically features a hipped roof with or without dormers and a two- or three-bay facade with a one-story hipped roof porch extending across the entire facade. Foursquares are built of wood frame, brick, concrete block, or combinations thereof. Examples of this distinctively American house type within the South Side Historic District include: 508 West Third Street (ca. 1920), a wood frame house with a first story of clapboard and a second story of stained wood shingles, and a four-bay facade with a two-story bay window; 317 West Fourth Street (ca. 1910), a yellow brick house with a gable roof and hipped dormers and a one-story wood porch with battered columns set upon brick piers; and 109-111 Cowell Avenue (ca. 1920), an American Foursquare double house with a stuccoed first story and a second story clad in stained wood shingles, capped with a hipped roof with hipped dormers and a symmetrical facade with each entry shielded by a matching porch.
Several imposing Georgian Revival-style residences are found within the district. Generally executed in brick, homes of this style most often exhibit hipped-roofed with dormers and feature symmetrical facades trimmed in classically-derived ornamentation. Homes executed in the Georgian Revival style in the district include the 1903 Peter M. Speer House, 108 Cowell Avenue, a formally-arranged three-story buff brick home with hipped roof, high-style ornamented dormers, terra cotta trim, and a centered entryway with a fanlight and sidelights, 7 Reed Street, a ca. 1910 2 1/2-story brick home with a truncated hipped roof, hipped dormers on the facade, and a 1-story porch supported by wood columns and trimmed with a delicate turned balustrade, and 128 Wyllis Street, a ca. 1910 2 1/2-story wood frame residence with gable roof and paired gable dormers on the facade and a front porch with a turned balustrade.
Bungalows are found along the streets of the district that developed during the years between the World Wars. Residences built in this style are 1 1/2 stories in height, built of brick and wood frame, and are characterized by a usually-dormered projecting roof shielding a recessed front porch. Among representative examples of this style are 404 Cowell Avenue, which is a ca. 1920 brick-veneered 1 1/2-story residence with an intersecting gable roof system and a gable dormer on the facade, 6 Reed Street, which is a ca. 1925 1 1/2-story residence with a first story of brick and an upper story of stained wood shingles, and features a recessed porch beneath a gable roof with a shed dormer, and 324 Wyllis Street a ca. 1920 home with a first story of rock-faced concrete block, a second story of wood frame, and a recessed porch supported by shingled posts.
The Tudor Revival style, with its characteristic half-timbered exterior finish, is found throughout the district; many of these homes were likely designed by Oil City architect W. Holmes Crosby, whose hallmark during the 1920s was the Tudor Revival style. Among Tudor Revival-style homes in the district are the George Veach House (615 West First Street), a Tudor Revival-style remodeling of a nineteenth- century residence, which is finished in half-timbered stucco but retains bargeboard in the eaves. Other Tudor Revival-style residences include: 301 West Third Street (ca. 1925), a 2 1/2-story residence of ornamental brick construction, flat-topped and segmental-arched windows, and a roof of tile; 528 West Third Street (ca. 1920) a 2 1/2-story home with half-timbered finish within which are set flat-topped windows; and 510 West Third Street (ca. 1920), built of brick with a half-timbered second story and a jerkinhead gable roof of tile.
Limitations of time precluded the documentation of all the twentieth-century mail-order houses within the district, but two adjacent identical ca. 1920 cottages of tile construction with a cement finish (807 and 809 West First Street, respectively) suggest an origin in the mail-order catalog, and a ca. 1925 one-story cottage at 1214 West First Street is an Aladdin home.
Both single-family homes and double houses are found throughout the district; some single-family residences have been converted for multi-family use. The residential architecture is executed in a variety of scales, including one and 1 1/2-story (in the case of cottages and Bungalows), 2- to 2 1/2-story (in the case of the majority of the homes), and 3-story (in the case of larger suburban homes constructed by the leaders of commerce and industry of the time). The majority of the homes in the district are of wood frame, with gabled or hipped roofs; French Second Empire-style homes exhibit distinctive Mansard roofs, while Dutch Colonial Revival-style buildings have gambrel roofs. Foundation material includes field stone, ashlar stone, and brick, as well as early twentieth-century innovations such as rusticated and rock-faced concrete block and glazed tile block. Most roofs are covered in slate, asbestos, or composition shingle; a small number are of tile. The rooflines of most residences are pierced by chimneys of brick and/or stone. The various homes are ornamented according to each of the particular styles. Since much of the architecture dates from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a variety of examples of residential art glass is found throughout the district. The George H. Snyder House, (402 Cowell Avenue) was the home of the owner of the Snyder Roofing Company; built of wood frame, its entire exterior is clad in slate. Repetitive house types are best typified by a wide variety of Bungalows and American Foursquares as well as by side-by-side ca. 1900 Colonial Revival-style homes at 3 and 5 Division Street, two ca. 1920 cottages of concrete-over-tile construction at 805-807 West First Street, the 600 block of West Front Street, and the 700 block of North Street, both of which date from the early years of the twentieth century.
Institutional buildings within the district include several churches and lodges of fraternal organization. Among the styles of ecclesiastical architecture in the district are the High Victorian Gothic style, represented by the 1886 Christ Episcopal Church (16 Central Avenue), featuring lancet-arched windows and doors and polychrome brick, stone, and terra cotta trim, and the Romanesque Revival style, seen in the 1892 brick Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (100 Central Avenue) and the monumental stone St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church of 1906 (21 State Street), with round-arched fenestration and asymmetrical towers. The Late Gothic Revival style, also characterized by lancet-arched fenestration and an irregular plan, is seen in the 1914 Calvary Methodist Church (115 East First Street), the Second Presbyterian Church of 1913 (111 Reed Street), and the 1906-07 Swedish Lutheran Church (207 State Street). Richardson Romanesque-style architecture is seen in architect W. Holmes Crosby's 1928 Good Hope Lutheran Church Parish House and Rectory at 107 First Street, built of Hummelstown brownstone. The churches are built exclusively of masonry and feature religious art glass windows.
The district's finest secular institutional building is the Neo-Classical Revival-style 1902 Carnegie Library of 1905 (2 Central Avenue), designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm of C. W. Bolton & Co. Other examples of institutional architecture include Pittsburgh architect Charles M. Bartberger's 1901 Masonic Hall (17 West First Street) and the 1927-28 Knights of Columbus Hall, 111 Petroleum Street), designed by Oil City architects Brenot and Hicks. Both the Library and the Masonic Hall were built by local contractors Allen and Meals, while the Knights of Columbus Hall was the work of builder Louis O.Bouquin, another prominent Oil City contractor. Bouquin also was responsible for the construction of the 1928 commercial block at 15 West First Street, the 1928 Good Hope Lutheran Church Rectory (107 West First Street), and the 1915 Oil City Armory at 101 East Second Street, designed by Oil City architect Emmett E. Bailey; the Armory was previously listed in the National Register as part of a Multiple Property Documentation Form for Pennsylvania National Guard Armories.
Most commercial architecture is executed in brick and the majority is Italianate in character, with tall, narrow window proportions, overhanging cornices of wood or metal, and relatively flat roofs. The majority of the commercial buildings in the district are two to three stories in height. Representative examples of the Italianate commercial architecture within the district include: 122 East First Street (ca. 1870); 18 East First Street (ca. 1870); 6 East First Street (ca. 1880); 105 East First Street (ca. 1870); and 2 East First Street (ca. 1870). The Art Deco style is seen in the 1928 Latonia Theater Building (1-9 West First Street). The district's finest example of historic roadside architecture is a 1920s Tudor Revival-style automobile service station (119 East First Street), of brick construction with a stone front, a full upper story of half-timbered finish, and a roof of decorative slate.
The Oil City South Side Historic District contains four objects, all of which are military commemorative in nature; three are located on two raised "islands" in the middle of Central Avenue in front of the Oil City Public Library. At the north end of northern island, a concrete tombstone-like object with a bronze plaque (1930s) is dedicated to the memory of Oil Citian Gen. George Rickards (1860-1933), a Distinguished Service Medal recipient who enlisted in the Army in 1877, rose through the ranks, and was elevated to the rank of Brigadier General in 1917. Immediately south of this object, on the same island, is a Veterans' Memorial erected in 1928 on the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Armistice. Designed pro bono by Oil City architect W. Holmes Crosby, the monument consists of an eight-foot square shaft of pink Stony Creek granite set upon a square base. A high school competition was held to chose the inscription on the monument which reads, "Dedicated to those patriots who in peace, preserve, in war, defend, and make fast the blessings of liberty, peace, and prosperity." The third object is located on the southern island, and is a howitzer placed there in 1976 as a Veterans of Foreign Wars memorial. The fourth object is a brick veterans' memorial at the south end of the Petroleum Street Bridge. The first two objects are contributing resources, while last two are noncontributing since they were erected outside the period of significance.
For the most part, the buildings within the Oil City South Side Historic District are in an excellent state of repair and show little evidence of disinvestment. Churches are generally extremely well-preserved and some sensitive rehabilitation activity has occurred both in the commercial area and in the residential neighborhood. Commercial rehabilitation activities have included storefront and facade renovations funded, in part, by the City's Community Development Block Grants. Residential rehabilitation work includes the repair of deteriorated features on historic homes and repainting in period-appropriate color combinations.
Some demolition has occurred within the district, resulting in the replacement of older buildings with new construction or the development of surface parking lots. This activity is dispersed widely throughout the commercial portion of the district and does not detract significantly from the overall integrity of the district. Within the residential area, a far more limited scope of demolition and/or new construction has occurred over the past half-century.
As in virtually any older area, the introduction of new materials has wrought some of the most pervasive changes in the Oil City South Side Historic District. This is true particularly with reference to artificial siding and window replacement. However, as with demolition, these activities have not diminished significantly the ability of the district to convey a sense of history.
Taken as a whole, the Oil City South Side Historic District is a cohesive collection of commercial, residential, and institutional architecture interspersed with a small number of commemorative objects, most of which contribute to the character of the district, and includes a compact neighborhood commercial area and an extensive historic residential neighborhood dotted with architecturally-significant homes constructed for the upper and middle class over a seventy-five year span in the City's history.
The Oil City South Side Historic District is significant under National Register Criteria A and C. Under Criterion A, the district is significant as the tangible reflection of patterns both of commercial and middle- and upper-class residential development which was closely associated with the historic oil industry within this important northwestern Pennsylvania community. The district conveys a clear and identifiable architectural and historical cohesion through its design, setting, workmanship, materials, and association. Oil City was at the center of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century oil industry throughout the period of significance of the district (1863-1945), with oil-related activity beginning in the district shortly after Col. Edwin L. Drake's drilling of the first successful commercial oil well at nearby Titusville in 1859 and continuing to the present. With the burgeoning industry, Oil City became an extremely important office, commercial, and residential center for the historic oil boom that occurred in this part of Pennsylvania, and the district contains the homes of many industry leaders who were prominently associated with the heritage of oil production in Pennsylvania. Among these are refiners, oil developers, and industrialists whose businesses supplied materials for the exploration and refining of petroleum. Under Criterion C, the district is important for its cohesive collection of historic commercial, residential, and institutional buildings, executed in a variety of architectural styles popular during the nineteenth and twentieth century; some of the buildings are the documented work of locally- and regionally-important architects and builders. The nominated resource meets the registration requirements for Property Types la and 1b, commercial historic districts and residential historic districts, as specified in Section F of the Multiple Property Documentation Form, Resources of the Oil Industry of Western Pennsylvania, 1859-1945.
The period of significance for the Oil City South Side Historic district begins in 1863 and ends in 1945. The earlier date corresponds to William Lay's platting and sale of building lots in Laytonia, his new town on the south bank of the Allegheny River which became the core of the historic district. The closing date corresponds to the end of the "Production Phase" of the Pennsylvania oil industry, as described in the Multiple Property Documentation Form and corresponds to the time of construction of the most recent historic properties in the district (typified by those along Cowell Avenue).
Throughout the period of significance the landscape of the district changed dramatically. Beginning as a small-scale settlement of temporary houses along the river, the commercial area along Front and First Streets developed from the 1870s to the 1890s, while much of the hillside to the south remained vacant and was referred to as "oil lands" on early surveys. Subdivision of land began at an early date. In 1865, fewer than two years after William Lay's sale of lots, the Orange Oil Company subdivided a portion of the Moran farm between Division and Orange Street. As the nineteenth century waned, additional development spread out from the original core area and large tracts were subdivided for more dense development. Characteristic subdivisions include the Goodwin, White, and Innis Addition of 1870, generally between Orange and Innis Streets, which created building lots of c. 40' x c. 160', with out-lots of 130' x 220'. Oilman F. W. Mitchell platted two comparable additions in 1889 and 1899 between Mayer and Reservoir Streets. Moving into the twentieth century, architectural fashions changed and the popularity of large, rambling homes was succeeded by the desirability for smaller, more manageable houses on suburban lots. This trend is typified by the development of Cowell Avenue, in the western part of the district. This street was depicted with only two houses in an 1896 "bird's-eye" view, but by the time the 1928 City Directory was published twenty-eight houses were listed on Cowell Avenue, all on lots of approximately 50' x 100'.
Much of the area encompassed by the historic district was part of a tract of land given in 1796 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Indian chief, Cornplanter, by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in appreciation of his services rendered during the Revolutionary War. The land traded hands several times over the coming years. Large tracts were acquired by Benjamin Thompson and James Hollis, a portion of which was sold in 1853 to Henry Bastian who farmed the property. Other investors in the area included Charles Lee and Thomas G. Downing, who controlled several hundred acres on the south side and platted the property into building lots. With the discovery of oil and the obvious bright future of the entire area, William L. Lay came to the Oil Creek valley from Cincinnati and purchased the Bastian Farm in the spring of 1863. Lay immediately laid out his property in building lots, and advertised in the April 22, 1863 edition of the Venango Spectator:
"...a public sale of town lots in the New Town, opposite Oil City, Pa., on the Allegheny River, will take place on the ground at 10 o'clock on Thursday, April 28, 1863. The location is the most desirable for a town in the Oil Region. The surface is about 40 ft. above the river at the bank and rises gradually...giving a grand view of the River, Oil City, and the Valley of Oil Creek."
Lay named his new settlement "Laytonia," and it soon became a desirable location for commercial and residential development. Messrs. Downing and Lee's new communities were named Imperial and Leetown, respectively. In 1866 the citizens of the three south side settlements petitioned the Venango County Court to unite the communities; Judge Trunkey acceded to the petition and the new community was christened Venango City — not to be outdone by Oil City, across the river, which was also in a state of frenzied growth, after being incorporated as a Borough in 1862. Venango City and Oil City remained separate municipalities until 1871, when the union of the two occurred. Over the next forty years, two additional settlements were incorporated into Oil City. Siverly, located upriver along the Allegheny River on the north side, was joined to the city in 1910 and the area known as West End Borough (although officially not a Borough), located west of Cowell Avenue within the district, was annexed in 1916.
The South Side Historic District was born during the stage of development of the oil industry which is characterized as the "Early Phase" in the Multiple Property Documentation Form. Settlement with temporary housing likely began in the district in the late 1850s. The unbridled growth of the area during the early years of the oil boom is evident in the population statistics which in 1860 recorded about twelve families in what was to become the north side of Oil City. By 1865, when more permanent buildings had been established, it was estimated that the population on both sides of the river had topped 6,000. The United States Census of 1890 showed the city with a population of 10,932 and 13,264 in 1910. In 1918, following the annexation of Siverly and West End Borough, the total population was estimated by the Oil City Derrick newspaper to be 22,127. Writing in 1919, historian Charles A. Babcock stated in his Venango County, Pennsylvania: Her Pioneers and People:
"The growth from fifty or sixty in 1860 to 22,127 fifty-eight years later is certainly remarkable. The town and its industries, and the number and character of its buildings, are improving at a more rapid rate at the beginning of 1919 than ever before." (p. 302)
As the oil industry grew north of Oil City, oil was transported in barrels loaded into barges which were floated down Oil Creek in man-made freshets, flowing into the Allegheny River opposite the district. The homes of two early raftsman, William A. Hughes and Alvin Watterson have been identified within the district. As early as April, 1860, the steamship "Venango" carried the first barrels of crude oil to Pittsburgh via the Allegheny. The earliest buildings in the south side were of modest vernacular construction, more typical of a "boomtown" than of a settled neighborhood. A major impetus to the growth of the south side was the 1866 construction of the Oil City-Petroleun Bridge, linking Oil City with then — Venango City. As the fortunes of oil increased and as oil-related industries were born and made their home in Oil City, the south side became the most desirable residential section of the community. The hillside area east of the principal north side central business district (see National Registered Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District) had been platted at roughly the same time as the south side. Known as "Cottage Hill," this neighborhood, sited on a comparatively steep hillside, did not offer the ability to lay out the spacious town lots which characterize the South Side Historic District. William Lay's new town and its environs, with significant expanses of relatively flat ground, were clearly the most sought-after sites on which to build a home from the riches garnered from the oil industry. A commercial area developed along Front and First Streets to serve the new town, competing with the north side business district across the river. The south side's "downtown" became more of a neighborhood commercial area. The major offices, stores, and governmental buildings were erected on the north side. As the south side communities grew together, the overall area shed its boomtown character as it expanded up the hill with development along Third through Fifth Streets, becoming home to people associated with the more stable refining, tool production, and commercial aspects of the industry.
The commercial neighborhood of the South Side Historic District is located primarily along Front and First Streets and contains Italianate, Colonial Revival, and vernacular commercial buildings and one Art Deco-style theater building. The physical manifestation of the mercantile life in this neighborhood throughout much of the period of significance, this area reflects clearly the maturity of the neighborhood, manifest in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commercial architecture throughout the business section.
The residential development of the South Side Historic District grew outward from the business district. Many of the first homes built within the district were erected along First and Front Streets, Central Avenue, and Petroleum Street. Some owners purchased multiple lots and erected large-scale residences with lavish grounds. As noted above, most of these larger tracts have been subdivided and smaller homes have been built beside the more imposing residences. The earliest residences in the district were vernacular adaptations of the Greek Revival style with an interspersing of high-style residences of the Gothic Revival style. During the periods characterized in the Multiple Property Documentation Form as the "Flourishing Phase" and the "Stabilization Phase," homes were erected in most of the other popular nineteenth-century styles, including French Second Empire, Italianate, Colonial Revival, Stick, and Shingle styles. In 1886 this flurry of building activity in the district was reflected in a local newspaper's comment that fourteen frame houses "are in the progress of erection on the south side. Most of them are of the latest styles of architecture." As the old century waned and the new century was born, the "Settled Phase" of the oil industry occurred and many more homes were constructed in the Colonial, Georgian, Dutch Colonial, and Tudor Revival styles, along with Bungalows and American Foursquares. Both the nineteenth and twentieth century also witnessed the construction of vernacular residences throughout the district. Thus, the residential portion of the district is particularly important as the reflection of the full spectrum of domestic development patterns within this oil community, employing designs from the most up-to-date styles.
One of the largest of the early homes which retains much of its original grounds is the imposing ca. 1875 Gothic Revival-style home of industrialist Warren J. Innis, sited on a corner lot at the top of the Innis Street hill (305 West Fourth Street). A Massachusetts native, Innis came to the region in 1864 and became an avid but largely unsuccessful oil developer and investor. After losing most of his capital in dry holes; he opened a small machine shop and invented an improved sucker rod for the pumping of oil. His new rod was so successful that he was able to establish the Innis Manufacturing Company, eventually producing more that 5,000 feet of sucker rods each day as well as engines; Innis' firm was eventually acquired by the mammoth Oil Well Supply Company of Oil City.
Throughout the district are the homes of other leading Oil City citizens, some of whom were directly associated with the oil industry and others of whom were leading merchants and general business leaders. About 1870 pioneer drilling tool manufacturer M. M. Mount erected a French Second Empire-style home at 211 West First Street; the home was later occupied by Robert Moore, principal in the firm of Moore and Stephenson, a leading local dry goods establishment. Other major retailers represented in the district include Fred Chambers, principal of the Chambers Hardware Company; he was also an oil producer and served as treasurer and general manager of the Strong Oil Company. His ca. 1890 Queen Anne-style home is located at 204 West First Street. The merchant community is also reflected in the Tudor Revival-style home of George Veach (615 West First Street); Veach was a leading furniture retailer with a four-story business block across the river in the downtown, and was also one of the three community leaders who developed the 1928 Drake Theater, also on the north side. Another early home is the ca. 1876 Gothic Revival-style cottage of Charles Lay (114 Petroleum Street), brother of William Lay, mentioned above. The August Morck House (205 West First Street) is a French Second Empire-style residence which was home to a prominent local optometrist who developed improved bi-focal glasses. Kasper Kugler (1843-1927) was a pioneer oil field tool manufacturer. He began the production of drilling tools at Petroleum Centre in 1863 and, doing business as Mount & Kugler, moved his operations into Oil City in 1871. That same year he erected a vernacular cottage with Gothic Revival-style detailing at 306 West First Street, which was only the second house in the neighborhood at the time of its construction. That home stands today relatively untouched and is the home of Kugler's grandsons. John R. Penn (1832-1915) built his 1892 Colonial Revival-style home at 116 West First Street. Penn, a financier, was active with a variety of banking institutions associated with the oil industry.
Individuals closely associated with the transportation of oil also made their homes in the district. Benjamin Brundred (1849-1914) was Chief Clerk of the Green Line, the Pennsylvania Railroad's crude oil railway. He was also one of the founders of the Emerald Oil Works, and became president and general manager of the Imperial Refining Company, which in turn was eventually acquired by the National Transit Company. Brundred built a rambling Eclectic home with detailing from the Queen Anne, Shingle, and Colonial Revival styles at 315 West First Street. Another associate of the Pennsylvania's Green Line was William F. Cullins, who built a ca. 1930 Colonial Revival-style home at 208 West First Street. Nearby, at 202 West First Street, Alfred Smedley (for whom the district's Smedley Street is named) lived in a ca. 1890 Queen Anne/Colonial Revival-style home; he was an oil developer and pipe line engineer who served as Chief Engineer for the National Transit Company.
Working-class oil-related residents occupy important positions in the heritage of the district as well. Among these are two men associated with the transportation of oil, Alvin Watterson and William Hughes. Watterson (1845-1928) lived in a vernacular-style home at 1127 West First Street. He was one of the first boat crews to transport crude oil from the region, beginning in 1858 when the substance was used primarily for medicinal purposes. Watterson held the record for the fastest round-trip from Oil City to Pittsburgh and was active in oil transportation until 1868. From that date until 1925 he was an employee of the F. W. Mitchell lease operations. At 1003 West First Street is the Shingle Style residence of William A. Hughes (1838-1928). Hughes was a pilot on the Allegheny River, rafting oil barges from Oil City to Pittsburgh. Late in life he was honored at the International Petroleum Exposition in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a "veteran oilman."
Refiners, too, lived in the residential areas of the South Side Historic District. Charles L. Suhr (1877-1970), a member of a prominent oil family, was superintendent of the Germania Refining Company, which his father had organized. He eventually became president and treasurer of the Oil City Oil and Grease Company, manager of the Germania Refining Company, Chairman of the Board of the Oil City Trust Company and of the South Penn Oil Company (the parent company of Pennzoil), and eventually became Chairman of the Board of the Pennzoil corporation. His ca. 1910 Colonial Revival-style residence is located at 507 West Third Street. One-time Petroleum Centre pumper M. J. Kirschner rose in the industry to become superintendent of the South Penn Oil Company; his ca. 1895 Colonial Revival-style residence is found at 206 West First Street. Conrad Simmons was one of the organizers of the Germania Refining Company and eventually became its president; he lived in a handsome ca. 1870 French Second Empire-style home at 301 West First Street. In 1903 attorney Peter Moore Speer constructed an imposing Georgian Revival-style residence at 108 Cowell Avenue; he was president of the Petroleum Telephone Company, served in Congress, and became vice president of Standard Oil; the residence later was the home of Quaker State Oil Refining Company President Samuel Messer.
In addition to reflecting residential and commercial development patterns within Oil City, the district possesses a significant collection of institutional resources as well. Churches, small and large, are found within the district, including the earliest, Christ Episcopal Church (1886; 16 Central Avenue). St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church (1906; 21 State Street), First Baptist Church (1925; 407 West First Street), Second Presbyterian Church (1913; 111 Reed Street), Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (1892-93; 100 Central Avenue), Calvary Methodist Church (1914; 115 East First Street), and the Swedish Lutheran Church (1897; 207 State Street) are additional representatives of historic religious institutional design within the district. The construction of these churches paralleled directly the growth of the South Side Historic District during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Secular social development patterns are also in evidence within the historic district. The 1901 Masonic Hall (17 West First Street) was the home to the city's fraternal organization. The district's only theater building is the Art Deco-style Latonia Theater of 1928, in the same block as the Masonic Hall at 1-9 West First Street. The Knights of Columbus erected their Neo-Classical Revival-style hall at 111 Petroleum Street in 1928. Since 1923 the Belles Lettres Club has occupied the ca. 1890 G. F. Braden-Henry McSweeney House (405 West First Street); the property was built for the superintendent of the United Pipe Lines Division of the National Transit Company, and was presented to the club by attorney, oilman, and former Standard Oil general solicitor Henry McSweeney.
With respect to Criterion C, the South Side Historic District is significant as a cohesive collection of buildings — residential, commercial, and institutional — erected in a variety of elite and vernacular architectural styles, reflecting most of the modes of design popular during the period of significance of the district. A number of these buildings are documented as the work of locally- and regionally-important architects.
The architecture of the district includes residential buildings executed in the following styles: Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italian Villa, Italianate, French Second Empire, Stick and Shingle Styles, Queen Anne, Neo-Classical Revival. Colonial Revival (including Georgian and Dutch Colonial Revival), Tudor Revival, American Foursquare, and Bungalow. Commercial buildings are generally Italianate in character. Institutional architecture in the district includes a Carnegie-sponsored library, several churches, one movie theater, homes of fraternal/social organizations, and a previously-listed armory. Institutional buildings reflect a variety of architectural styles, including: High Victorian Gothic, Romanesque Revival, Late Gothic Revival, and Neo-Classical Revival. The buildings within the South Side Historic District represent each of the above styles with respect to their characteristic design features, including their massing, fenestration, roof form and character, and individual ornamentation. The district as a whole is particularly significant due to the high degree of architectural integrity which is retained by the vast majority of the individual components of the district.
The work of several locally- and regionally-important architects is found within the South Side Historic District. Fredonia, New York, architect Enoch A. Curtis (1831-1907) was responsible for the Christ Episcopal Church (16 Central Avenue). Curtis also designed the National Transit Building across the Allegheny River in downtown Oil City and was a well-known practitioner in other parts of the Oil Region, having designed eight buildings in Titusville, two in Pleasantville and the Bradford City Hall.
Joseph P. Brenot was born in neighboring Crawford County in 1865. After working in the offices of Palliser & Co., New York architects who produced a series of pattern books in the late nineteenth century, he spent three years in the Chicago office of architect W. A. Otis. He came to Oil City in the early 1890s and established himself as a well-respected practitioner. In 1912 he was featured in an article in The Ohio Architect, Engineer, and Builder and was characterized as "an architect who has done much towards [sic] the upbuilding of that section of the Keystone state in whose depths lay the foundations of the amassed fortunes of many of our distinguished townsmen and others, embraced in the oil industry of America."
Brenot practiced throughout the Oil Region and beyond, designing homes, commercial buildings, and churches in the Oil City environs as well as in Youngstown, Ohio, and in Smethport, Union City, Farrell, Warren, Titusville, Franklin, Sharon, Punxsutawney, and Kane, Pennsylvania. The Ohio Architect article also stated that in the ten years preceding the publication of the article, Brenot had designed all of the parochial schools and convents for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie. Within the South Side District, he was responsible for the design of the ca. 1910 Scranton Building (118 West Front Street), the ca. 1900 Frank O'Day House (519 West Third Street), the W. S. McCuen House of ca. 1910 (205 Division Street), and, practicing as Brenot and Hicks, was responsible for the 1928 Knights of Columbus Auditorium (111 Petroleum Street).
St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church (21 State Street) was designed by prominent Akron, Ohio architect William P. Ginther, F.A.I.A., who was born in Akron in 1858. In addition to a conventional residential and commercial practice, for more than a quarter-century Ginther specialized in the design of ecclesiastical buildings in Ohio and in sections of western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgher Charles M. Bartberger was responsible for the design of the 1901 Masonic Hall (17 West First Street) and the Pittsburgh firm of Marks and Kann designed the 1928 Latonia Theater (1-9 West First Street).
Emmett E. Bailey (1872-1942) was a leading designer throughout much of the Oil Region of northwestern Pennsylvania. A native of Tully Valley, New York, City Directories suggest that Bailey began practice in Oil City as early as 1904, when he was associated with Frank L. Charles, practicing as Charles & Bailey. He was active across the region, designing homes and public buildings including the Oil City Hospital, as well as a 1927 remodeling and architecturally-compatible addition to the Jefferson County Court House and a new hospital and nurses' home at Brookville, fifty miles to the east. Within the historic district Emmett Bailey designed the 1915 Oil City Armory (101 East Second Street), listed individually on the National Register, the 1913 Second Presbyterian Church (111 Reed Street), and the 1925 First Baptist Church (407 West First Street).
W. Holmes Crosby (1888-1985) was a Carnegie Institute of Technology graduate (1912; Master's, 1914); he also held a Certificate of the Beaux Arts Architects. He came to Oil City in 1915, became associated with Emmett Bailey, and remained in active practice here for more than forty years, designing residences, schools, and public buildings throughout the region; Crosby's Tudor Revival-style homes were his hallmark during the 1920s and '30s. In the 1920's his offices were in the Masonic Hall at 17 West First Street. He designed the 1928 Good Hope Lutheran Church Rectory and Parish House (107 West First Street) and the Veterans' Memorial monument opposite the Public Library (1928).
Master builders represented in the South Side Historic District include long-time contractor J. T Meals, who built the Dr. E. M. Wolfe House at 123 West Second Street in 1886, as well as the 1901 Masonic Hall (17 West First Street) and the 1902 Oil City Public Library (2 Central Avenue); the latter two were built under the name Allen and Meals. Louis O. Bouquin was active in Oil City for many years, and within the district built the 1928 Knights of Columbus Auditorium (111 Petroleum Street), the previously-listed Oil City Armory of 1915 (101 East Second Street), and the 1928 Good Hope Lutheran Church Rectory and Parish House (107 West First Street) and the 1928 commercial block at 15 West First Street.
Viewed within the context of the region, the South Side Historic District stands as a large district containing historic architecture representing a variety of design modes and exemplifying the rise of this very special Oil Region community during the heyday of the Pennsylvania oil boom. While some losses have occurred both within the commercial area and residential neighborhood, the district nonetheless compares favorably with other Oil Region historic communities such as Titusville, Warren, and Franklin. Moving beyond the confines of the Oil Region, the South Side Historic District is considerably larger than the Brookville Historic District (about fifty miles to the east, in Jefferson County) and contains a far greater variety of architectural styles than does the Brookville district. The South Side Historic District is clearly an area which is inextricably tied to the heritage of oil within western Pennsylvania, reflects the commercial and residential development of this pivotal Oil Region community, and is architecturally significant because of its cohesive collection of architecture which represents a variety of styles and is the work of regionally- and locally-important architects.
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1st Street West • 2nd Alley West • 3rd Alley West • 3rd Street West • 4th Street West • 5th Alley West • 5th Street West • Abbott Street • Beatty Place • Beech Street • Central Avenue • Cowell Avenue • Division Street • Front Street West • Hazel Place • Hemlock Alley • Innis Street • Lees Lane • Lincoln Alley • Lincoln Street • Mayer Street • Mitchell Avenue • North Alley • North Street • Orange Street • Orchard Street • Petroleum Street • Poplar Street • Reed Street • Route 62 • School Street • Slate Street • Smedley Street • Wyllis Alley • Wyllis Street